Archive for the ‘control’ Category

Setting up a contract about tech use with your kids

January 8, 2013

The holidays are a time when lots of parents give gifts of technology to their children. And so, when a mom in Cape Cod created and then blogged about an 18-point contract for her son as she gave him an iPhone for Christmas, I guess I wasn’t too surprised to see that her contract went viral.

As a response I thought I’d post the contract that’s in the back of my book, The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age.

I got some of the ideas for my own contract from Common Sense Media, which provides great age-appropriate resources for parents who want help figuring out how to positively integrate technology into the lives of their family members. Like the contract that Janell Hoffman wrote, the contract in my book is meant to encourage conversation between parents and kids around technology. Mine includes not just mobiles but all kinds of family technologies and it also reflects a broad way of parenting in the digital age that emphasizes mutual respect.

I really liked that Hoffman’s contract included lots of fun. The one suggestion I’d add to that contract: I think it’s a good idea to create something that both the children and the parents can sign. From my research, I learned that young people learn a great deal from what they observe among their parents, and sometimes we have a hard time putting the tech down even when we really want to prioritize time with our precious family members (I speak from experience as an easily distracted multitasking mom of two teens!). So what’s below is not just a contract for a young person to sign – parent(s) need to sign it, too.

Here’s to navigating a media-saturated world together!

Time Together

1. I agree to spend ___ hours each week doing activities with only my family members.
2. I agree that when I am at the dinner table with my family (whether at home or elsewhere), I will put my hone and other devices away and I will not return to them until we have finished cleaning up after the meal.
3. I agree that the following locations will be no-technology zones:__________________

Mutual Support

1. I agree that I will tell someone in my family if I experience something online that makes me feel bad or if I find something that I feel is inappropriate.
2. I agree that no matter what I am doing, I will answer the phone when I see that a family member is calling.

Respecting the Rights of Others

1. I will download or use copyrighted materials only when they are legal to download or I have sought permission to use them.
2. When filling out surveys or questionnaires online or on a mobile, I will not give out specific information about where I live or where I go during the day.
3. I will give credit to others when I cite, quote, or copy their ideas or images from an online source.
4. I won’t copy, paste, and send a message to someone else if that message was meant only for me.
5. I won’t text and drive. Ever.


1. I agree that I will ask permission when I’d like to view what someone else has been doing online, with texts, or elsewhere. I agree that I will not hide what I am doing online and on my phone from other members of my family.
2. I agree that I will not share personal information that I wouldn’t be willing to see broadcast on our local television news.
3. I agree to limit play time on the computer to ____ hours each week.
4. I agree to limit game time on game devices, mobiles, or tablets to ___ each week.
5. I agree that I am responsible for remembering my own password, and I will not share it with anyone beyond my family.
6. I agree that I will practice respectful and responsible behavior, and I will not insult other people or send mean or inappropriate messages online, in a text, or in a comment.
7. I agree that I will not purchase anything online or enter a credit card for any reason without asking another family member first.


1. I agree that I will ask _______ (someone in my family) how to do _______ (e.g., how to play Minecraft, write a blog essay, set up a ring tone, etc.)
2. I agree that I will help _______ learn how to do __________.

Do you have some other items you’d like to add?


NY Times story on parental monitoring features me & friends

June 26, 2012

‘Big Brother’? No, It’s Parents

Published: June 25, 2012 26 Comments

When her children were ready to have laptops of their own, Jill Ross bought software that would keep an eye on where they went online. One day it offered her a real surprise. She discovered that her 16-year-old daughter had set up her own video channel.

Kyle and Colleen Reed, with Darren, 13, and Trevor, 11, in Golden, Colo. Mr. Reed monitors Darren’s texting with an app.

Using the camera on her laptop, sometimes in her bedroom, she and a friend were recording mundane teenage banter and broadcasting it on YouTube for the whole world to see.

For Ms. Ross, who lives outside Denver, it was a window into her daughter’s mind and an emblem of the strange new hurdles of modern-day parenting. She did not mention it to her daughter; she just subscribed to the channel’s updates. The daughter said nothing either; she just let Mom keep watching.

“It’s a matter of knowing your kids,” Ms. Ross said of her discovery.

Parents can now use an array of tools to keep up with the digital lives of their children, raising new quandaries. Is surveillance the best way to protect children? Or should parents trust them to share if they are scared or bewildered by something online?

The answers are as varied as parents themselves. Still, the anxieties of parenting in the digital age have spawned a mini-industry, as start-ups and established companies market new tools to track where children go online, who they meet there and what they do. Because children are glued to smartphones, the technology can allow parents to track their physical whereabouts and even monitor their driving speed.

If, a few years ago, the emphasis was on blocking children from going to inappropriate sites on the family computer, today’s technologies promise to embed Mom and Dad — and occasionally Grandma — inside every device that children are using, and gather intelligence on them wherever they go.Read more at the New York Times

Tracking our growing children, one microchip at a time

March 4, 2012

Last night I went out for dinner with four women friends. Each has children that are about the same age as my own children, who are 11 and 13. The first thing one friend said to another when we sat down was that she had heard that chips were now available. Being ever-perceptive, I assumed she was going to tell us about that product that is the current source of my guilty pleasure and that I’d been eating just before our dinner: Pop Chips (“the potato chip that’s not baked or fried!”). But she continued to explain that she was talking about the chips I study rather than those I eat: microchips that would allow parents to track their kids’ whereabouts.

“Yeah, but you can already do that with their cell phones, right?,” I asked, trying to understand the enthusiasm for this new portable parent-friendly microchip. Yes, of course, several friends acknowledged, and the mom who’s especially enthused about this possibility for tracking talked about how glad she is that this technology will be available when her now-11-year-old reaches her teen years. This friend’s told us about her own teen escapades sneaking out of the house, and she very much wants to nip that temptation in the bud for her daughter.

We then launched into a series of riffs on how one could “plant” the microchip on our kids: in a pocket? In sports equipment? Under their skin? This led to a lot of laughter. It all seems so sci-fi.

Eventually, one of my friends then talked more seriously about how much she and her husband had enjoyed using cell phones to keep track of their two sons when they were all skiing together. “We can see exactly where they are on the mountain,” she explained, which helped them to feel reassured about giving their sons the freedom to ski down on their own, and also limited the possibilities for missed signals about meeting times and locations.

The conversation was striking to me because I’ve just been reading Margaret Nelson’s book, Parenting Out of Control, which gives a tut-tut-tut to moms like me and my friends who have casually adopted a variety of technologies for keeping track of growing children. Nelson’s analysis is spot on: she’s right that parents voice anxiety about the risks our children face, and that we are interested in how technologies might contain that risk. It was interesting to me to observe that, as Nelson noted, technologies of surveillance seem to have moved from strange to commonplace in parent life. But it’s also interesting that none of the parents of preteens around the table were currently using these microchip technologies. Instead, the fact that they were available was a source of comfort: it was a just-in-case technology.

Is this a function of age, or of differing parenting philosophies? Are my friends and I parents who will want to use these technologies in a few years, or will we find for some reason that we don’t need them or don’t want them? As of today I’m hoping that I don’t want to use them, as it seems pretty invasive and overbearing to want to track teens’ whereabouts. I think it’s okay for them to make some bad choices and suffer some consequences without me intervening. I kind of suspect that my friends won’t really do much tracking either, although I bet we’ll know – and discuss – other moms who do. And I’m sure that I’ll find some reasons for surveillance more convincing than others the more I hear about them.

As a social scientist, the strange thing is that we’ll never really know what such tracking might prevent, so we won’t be able to tell whether this invasiveness is actually worth it in the long run. Will our Super Parent tracking efforts result in the prevention of car accidents or of other risky behaviors? Maybe. That’s why we do it. Sadly, though, making such tracking “normal” will make it seem even more unnatural to let teens make mistakes without parental intervention. And that seems like a real loss.

The dad who shot his daughter’s computer

March 1, 2012

OK, everyone has read the story already: his daughter wrote disrespectful things on Facebook, she’d been warned that if she did it again her dad would shoot her computer, she does it again, he shoots it – and posts the shooting and a video message on YouTube that goes viral. 31 million views within a month! What I can’t believe is how much energy people are devoting to analyzing it. You have to read these comments about the issue over at Men’s Health.

Question to Tiger (and all) Mothers: Why is leisure bad?

January 24, 2011

Everyone knows that achievement takes hard work and discipline.  You’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that 10,ooo hours of focused attention on an activity separates experts from the rest of us, right?  But if there are 8,765 hours in a year, and children spend on average 3,800 or so sleeping (9 hrs/night) and 1,000 in school (6 hrs/day x 180 days), and even if they spend an average of 3 hours a day on homework (3 x 180 school days = 540) and another 3 hours developing expertise in the arts and/or sports throughout the year (about another 1,000 hours) and a couple of hours each day getting ready for school, getting transported to and from school, doing chores, and getting ready for bed (730 hours), then they still would have about 1,695 hours a year that they can spend in free time.  1,695 hours: more time than they spend in school!!  More time than they spend in extracurricular activities!  Isn’t that terrible?!!  It seems that recently, the parenting mantra has been in favor of zero free hours: no free time is seen as a good thing.

And thus it’s no surprise that some parents have celebrated Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (excerpted in the Wall Street Journal on January 8 2011), which pits the Eastern emphasis on discipline against the Western focus on self-esteem.  Much of the review of this book has focused on the issue of discipline, and of parental means of controlling both children and their time.  Hannah Rosin in the Wall Street Journal agrees with Chua, noting that in the U.S. “we believe that our children are special and entitled, but we do not have the guts or the tools to make that reality true for them.” In other words, we’re not doing enough to get them into the special activities that would help to cultivate their unique gifts. Sociologist Annette Lareau has a term for that approach.  It’s “concerted cultivation:” the approach that tends to be accepted among middle and upper middle class families, and that tends to see children as a project to be disciplined through time.

One of Chua’s enthusiastic supporters put the issue more baldly by focusing on the specifically aggressive and insulting “tools” of controlling children that’s associated with the Tiger Mother approach, lamenting, “American parents have no courage to put welts on the backs of their children.”  Given the fact that Chua’s article and book tend to trigger this kind of response, it’s no surprise that many other parents have taken Chua and her supporters to task for her over-the-top efforts that have occasionally crossed over into child cruelty.  The Times’ Lisa Belkin calls Chua’s book a stinging tribute to discipline with what Belkin suggests borders on Mommy Dearest tendencies.

The debate over Chua’s parenting styles illustrates, once again, the conflicted feelings we have about parenting and about such issues as child-centered versus parent-directed activities.  As the Boston Globe’s Joanna Weiss wonders, we might ask:  should we browbeat our kids into practicing so that they learn the benefits of discipline ?  And if we do so, are we doing it because we see them as weak and in need of our help (the Helicopter Parent approach), or strong and able to handle pressure and challenge (which is what Chua argues)?  Either way, we want to see ourselves as in charge, and our children as benefiting from our parenting labors.

But what if we’re not fully in charge?

What if we’re living through a seismic economic shift that is leaving fewer and fewer routes to what middle class parents have been conditioned to think of as middle class success?  It may be that this lack of our ability to control our children’s environment is what drives parents to anxiously want to schedule up all that “wasted” free time.  Perhaps, as Laurie Essig writes in The Chronicle, the real issue motivating Tiger Mothers is a fear that their children won’t enter the upper or upper middle classes of their stressed-out parents.

It’s easy to take credit for discipline gone well.  It’s not so easy to acknowledge the fact that kids with fewer privileges need not only disciplining parents, but also a lot of luck, to make the odds work in their favor.

Maybe part of the problem, then, is that across the economic spectrum, we’ve been conditioned to see our children through the prism of our own financial insecurities: as future workers who need to be prepared for the precarious workforce that they’ll inhabit someday.  In David Brooks’ critique of Chua’s book, he takes exactly this position (He thinks it’s fine that Chua prefers to prepare her kids to excel, but he thinks that homework and the arts are easier than preparing kids for their eventual role in team-oriented workplace environments.  For that, he says, things like playdates and sleepovers teach important skills, and Chua’s shortchanging her daughters by forbidding them).

But what if the workplace wasn’t the only model for what it meant to be a successful person?

What if our goals as parents included not only helping children to manage their time according to the dictates of an increasingly time-demanding workforce that asks adults to mold their free time activities so as to fit into their work schedules?  What if we valued music and the arts because they make us appreciate our humanity, and because they help us to value our own voices, expressions, and experiences, and in turn make us more capable of viewing ourselves as participants in democratic action?

As we as a society continue to move more toward embracing the dictates of the workplace in ever-more places in our lives, we can lose sight of the fact that there is an alternative to seeing ourselves, and our children, as workers destined to serve the interests of those who pay us for our labor.  We are more than our economic utility.  Contemplating that simple yet profound idea is an important outcome of leisure, and one that can help our children to envision other ways of valuing lives and gifts beyond the place that such efforts might garner them in the economic realm.

So maybe leisure or a lack of personal discipline isn’t the enemy after all, just as building self-esteem isn’t the only solution.

Parenting & Play

January 25, 2010

Author Alfie Kohn suggests that to practice unconditional love, parents should try to let go of control and see the world from the child’s point of view.

Too bad so few people seem interested in this advice when it comes to leisure and play.

Kohn’s article, titled, When A Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say,’ was the most widely emailed article for a while at the New York Times.

Kohn reviewed research that asked 100 college students whether they believed the love they’d received from their parents was dependent on their successes (at academics, sports, or even at supressing negative emotions like anger or fear). Those who believed that their parents’ love was more conditional were more likely to resent their parents. Another study of mothers of grown children found that the women who sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations felt themselves to be less worthy as adults. But sadly, these same mothers were more likely to use conditional affection with their own children.

In his article, Kohn concluded that the age-old advice about “positive reinforcement” for childhood behaviors well-enacted has a shadow side: kids learn that a parents’ love is conditioned upon a child’s “good behavior.” In other words, children learn that they’re not loved unconditionally, despite what a parent might say or even what she thinks she’s communicating. The problem with praise isn’t that it’s given too indiscriminately, as social conservatives might say. Rather, he says, even praise can become a form of control.

When author Stuart Brown advocated free play for children, he (somewhat ironically) received all manner of suggestions as to how parents could better control their children’s play time. Here’s my favorite from the comments section:

“How about throwing out the video games at home and requiring the kids to stay outdoors for at least an hour or two…the next step should be part time jobs to teach them responsibility and the work ethic…”

The problem with this suggestion is that requiring kids to do anything – in this case, “playing” in a parent-approved way of throwing out the video games and being forced to be “outdoors” – is the equivalent of taking away their autonomy. They can come to resent ‘forced play’ just as much as they’ll resent a forced march through soul-eating part-time jobs that are supposed to teach them “the work ethic.” What they’re likely to learn instead is that they can’t trust adults to allow them to grow on their own – or worse, they’ll learn that they can’t trust themselves. That’s the sad outcome of a society in which adults continue to believe that we can, and should, control our kids’ choices.

This isn’t to say that we can’t guide our children. But the issue is that many parents let themselves get overly troubled by the choices young people make, especially when it comes to the electronic media that are so much a part of their everyday lives and so different from adult experiences. And the solution isn’t going to lie in imposing some parent-approved notion of ‘play’ on our young people.

In a recently published book titled, Hanging Out, Messing Around, & Geeking Out, Mimi Ito and her colleagues take this argument even further. They argue that engagement with digital media can have some positive outcomes for young people. Ito and her colleagues note that in a society that’s increasingly worried about too much unproductive hanging out that doesn’t involve the hazily nostalgic notions of the healthy outdoors of yesteryear, we’re very tempted to try to control our kids’ leisure. But she and her team of 26 researchers found that when young people were allowed to explore and experiment on their own, they developed unique approaches to the online realm that resulted in informal learning. In fact, it could be that young people who have the greatest access to autonomy have the greatest opportunities to develop into happy, creative, and expressive individuals, they argue.

So here’s my suggestion: let’s try to encourage our young people to exercise their creative spirits on their own time and in their own ways. This may involve doing things online that seem to us silly, inane, superficial, or even downright dangerous. But when I remember how my best friend and I used to like to swing from tree branches to the roof of her house during our own halcyon “free play,” I take comfort in the fact that at least my own kids might develop some informal learning skills without breaking an arm or leg.

The point is this: learning to see the electronic media from the perspective of our kids is a first step toward letting go of our temptation to control. And more than that: trusting them and encouraging them to use the digital realm to express themselves can even end up helping them to discover who they are and maybe even who they want to be. To me, that sounds like a terrific way of telling our kids, “I love you unconditionally.”